I’ve been itching to read this book for ages. I bought it probably about a month and a half ago while I was still abroad, and I held onto it so that I could read it when I was “ready.*” This, of course, meant that I got to stare at it on my bookshelf for weeks as I worked my way through four other titles. 

I was excited about Waste Tide from the moment I spied it on a Dymock’s bookshelf. It’s fiery orange-red spine caught my attention and when I picked it up and spied the words “translated” on the cover I became even more enthused. I read several translated books for my fall season and have taken a liking to reading literature in translation. All the while as I’m reading the book, I can’t help but think about the painstaking—and no doubt incredibly complex—process that translators must go through to bring a book out of its native written language and into a new one. Especially with Qiufan’s book, which was originally published in Chinese in 2013.

image of chen qiufan's book "waste tide" on a table with a white lamp and a potted plant

Waste Tide, as described by David Mitchell, is an “eco-techno-thriller.” The story blends environment with technology with biology into a narrative mecha about the fine line between humans and their technology. Qiufan crafts a future riddled with technological debris and waste; a future that is not that hard to imagine. Waste processing is the biggest and most vital industry on Silicon Isle, the setting of this biotech thriller.

From prosthetic enhancements to virtual experiences, people navigate the real world alongside the digital one. Where do people end and computers begin? Or, more importantly, is such a distinction even possible in this world?

Once I finally started reading this book, it turned out to be far different than I imagined. This difference was largely due to the translator’s, Ken Liu, notes about language, topolects, and name(s). Liu dedicated an enormous amount of effort to appropriately treating Mandarin/Cantonese/Taiwanese/Japanses names by addressing the speaker by their surname followed by their first name in the language standard while treating English/British names in the standard by stating first name followed by the surname. There are additional footnotes throughout the book indicating the proper tone marks for pronunciation of non-English words. An example below:

The face of the lohsingpua6—a local witch of Silicon Isle—appeared especially hideous…

6With full tone marks: loh4sing7pua5

These marks refer to the specific tones that are emphasized in the original language (be it Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, etc.) The Cantonese tones are called “Pinyin.” As a native English speaker, this system is incredibly hard to understand, and I’m sure that as I was reading this book, I was mispronouncing almost every single non-English word.

Though it was frustrating to come across these words throughout the book, Ken Liu notes in his introduction on languages and names that he specifically intended to preserve some words in their native language:

“I’ve limited the use of Chinese words and phrases in this translation to an absolute minimum for readability reasons,” Liu explains. “To convey some flavor of the linguistic variety, I employ phonetic Teochew in select spots, leaving full tone marks to footnotes to aid readability of the main text.” Teochew is a Southern Min dialect spoken in the Chaoshan region of the eastern Guangdong.

While this does not aid native English speakers, it is vital to remember that this book was not written for English speaking/reading audiences. Qiufan wrote Waste Tide in Chinese six (almost seven) years ago and it was only just translated and published in English in April of this year. The idea of phonetic spelling, though appealing, may not be much more useful for native English speakers than the tone marks due to the complexities of Mandarin/Cantonese and the limited range of tone sounds contained in the English language. Some sounds and tones are simply irreplicable in English and phonetics may only confuse the reader further.

However, these language inclusions do not detract from the book. As I came across more and more non-English words (lodaitaocugcui, huêngkêh) I was reminded that this book was translated, and each appearance made me more and more excited. And it’s not as though the book was completely riddled with non-English words. They really only appeared every fifty pages or so, and they were good reminders that this is not and English book and that the story doesn’t take place in America/England**.

Waste Tide is an incredibly compelling novel about a future. It’s not necessarily our future, but it’s a future, or at least, it’s plausible. Excess technological waste? Massive corporations exploiting labor workers? Pollution on the toxic and cancerous scale? Check, check, and triple-check. It’s almost frightening to read and draw parallels between Qiufan’s waste world and our own. 

The social and governmental politics that Qiufan crafts are intricate and mirror real life almost uncomfortably. The scenes that play out are horrifying only insofar in that they are likely and plausible. Life-and-death choices, abuse of power, bribes and pay-offs—the realism is a bit frightening.

Fans of science fiction and futurism will be thrilled and unsettled by Qiufan’s novel—and that’s exactly what he wants.


*“ready” being defined as “having finished the books that I had borrowed from the library so I didn’t have to worry about due dates”

**Though it’s not as if that fact were not completely obvious, and anyone who reads this and thinks that it does take place anywhere other than China has some self-centered, self-righteous patriotic narcissism that they need to sort out

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